Illinois’ “O Beautiful”: More than a few missed notes

It is rare that I write a review that merely scathes. That mode is not really my point for this venue. I am more interested in unraveling the different things drama is capable of, what vision a particular production has, and whether they make good on that vision. With that said, I have never been more uncomfortable and upset at the unproductivity of a theatrical event as I was this last weekend. I have written previously on Krannert’s seeming new mission to take a social justice approach to its theatre—namely, taking account of its primary audience: UIUC students. Presentism has been one of the ways. They have featured productions in the last two years having to do with the current political milieu and election cycle, as well as the intersection of race and class in gentrification, a particularly exigent topic in the Midwest. However, O Beautiful, in attempting to cash in on the presentism of education censorship (especially concerning Arizona’s recent legislation) and playwright brand name recognition forgot the most important ingredient to making a production a hit: a playtext worthwhile.

O Beautiful is a bad play. I am saying this not according to my own aesthetic values, but rather that the play fails according to its own rules. It is set up as a satire, taking all the core values of American extremism and suggesting they will be lampooned with the use of a Bill O’Reilly/Glen Beck parody tv show insterstial to a small-town suicide. Public education reform, race, feminism, cyber bullying, gun violence, abortion and rape are all added to the mix as related symptoms. With so many issues at hand the play doesn’t do any individual one justice nor does it convince us of their codependence. The mother of the boy driven to suicide by cyber bullying knowingly erases the text messages, the only evidence of the guilty parties to her son’s death who happen to be the children of her friends. The one witness, a young girl, isn’t qualified to speak because how dare she be raped by one of the bullies and abort the pregnancy. And Jesus—an actual character in the play of the beatnick prophet variety out of a bad pop song—exonerates them all. The play meets with pat amelioration hate, violence, xenophobic exceptionalism and racism. No one is punished nor requited. In the end, the production suggests none of these things, not even a human life, are stakes high enough to care or hold someone responsible.

Part of the issue seems to be a misunderstanding of how satire works on the part of the playwright, Theresa Rebeck, a long-time stock writer for the Law & Order franchise as well as NBC’s lukewarm attempt to cash-in on the television musical fad, Smash. In satire there is a satirical target, an institution or idea that is taken to task for the faulty assumptions on which it is based or clings to for cultural authority. Through the shaming ridicule of its foibles and abuses in literature, we as an audience come to a two-part experience: (1) that we are made aware of the false logic and authority underpinning that institution, and (2) are partly implicated in giving that institution power over our social norms and cultural values. It is a powerful genre because of the complex result of its virulent criticism, which in other formulas just falls flat in one-dimensionality. In her play, Rebeck puts on display all of the varieties of militant extremism in our culture without addressing or even diagnosing the false logic or nefarious assumptions on which they collectively rely.

If there is a critique embedded here, it would seem to be one about our collective passive consumption practices. Linking and dividing the play formally and morally is the hyper-conservative parody TV program. The host intones a revival rhetoric of fear-mongering and firearm propaganda that holds up the constitutional “founding fathers” as America’s saviors. (This idea is not a new one, and dealt much for deftly and smartly in the recent gaming hit, Bioshock Infinite.) The adult characters in the play comment on how awful the program is with a smirk and a laugh, but like sheep passively watch while cooking dinner or as a distraction from the boy’s suicide. Several Continental Congressman are trouped onto the program; We are never sure if these are supposed to be allegorical embodiments invading present day like Jesus, or actors (played by actors) hired for the program. In the darkness of the Studio black-box theatre, we as an audience don’t turn away from the extremism on display, nor do the parents within the action of the play. We passively watch on, waiting for it to come to something meaningful while the extremism over time slowly becomes normalized, and we, morally anesthetized.

Upon arriving to a new state built on zeppelins, your character in “Biosock Infinite (2013)” is baptized in a cult that literalizes the “founding fathers” and venerates pre-Civil War militant federalism.

The play never meditates long enough on this issue for it to be clearly made the satiric target and its fault-lines revealed. Rather, much exposition is spent in teenagers bemoaning the confusion of their personal bildungsromans and their parents fixing marital problems by sharing milkshakes. Without any artifice or tact, the play falls flat of any coherent meaning, leaning on its presentism to create some semblance of traction. This is what is most nefarious to me. By giving all of the “air time” so to speak to the extremisms with which we contend, the assumption becomes that these small radical voices have equal weight, that these opinions based on blind belief and fear rather than critical reasoning are valid and reasonable positions. They get no counterweight, no political, critical, analytical, or moral opposition. These extremisms of suburban wasp culture are the only voices we hear in the play, without even the slightest hint otherwise to cast a shade over their privileged assumptions. Darkest about this play is not that it gives air to conservative extremisms in this country, but rather that it posits that we are not capable of and entirely without social debate.

Ensemble Timing: a look back at Krannert’s 2012-2013 Season

We’re all going to go crazy, living this epidemic every minute, while the rest of the world goes on out there, all around us, as if nothing is happening, going on with their own lives and not knowing what it’s like, what we’re going through. We’re living through war, but where they’re living it’s peacetime, and we’re all in the same country.

– Ned Weeks, from Larry Kramer’s The Normal Heart

In the past few weeks, the Department of Theatre at the University of Illinois announced there upcoming seasons of drama and opera at the Krannert Center for the Performing Arts. Both operas are later 19th-century retellings of classical material: Verdi’s Falstaff and Offenbach’s Orpheus in the Underworld. With new director Jeffrey Eric Jenkins at its helm–who comes to UIUC from the Tisch School at NYU–the theatre program will be offering not one but two Shakespeare plays from contrasting points in the bard’s career and both very recently adapted for film: The Tempest and Much Ado About Nothing. Three award-winning plays from the late-2000s with explicit investments in the negotiations between gender and class provide counterweight to these traditional offerings: Heather Raffo’s 9 Parts of Desire (2006), Bruce Norris’ Pulitzer winner Clybourne Park (2010), and Theresa Rebeck’s O Beautiful (2011). The innovation under Jenkins’ direction will be The Sullivan Project, an as-yet unnamed new play that actors and faculty will develop from the ground up over a three-year period. In looking forward to the 2013-2014 season, I thought this would make as good a time as ever to reflect back on this past season at Krannert consider this period of transition in the program.

As a playgoer, the strengths of the season were marked in two areas: formally in explorations of satire, and performatively in ensemble technique. The two satires that bookended the season were 44 Plays for 44 Presidents and the Reduced Shakespeare Company’s The Complete World of Sports (Abridged). While the later featured the original writers and cast of the Reduced Shakespeare Company themselves, the former recreated the sketch improv stylings of Chicago’s Neo-Futurists, one of my favorite late-night treats when I lived in the city. In a department that follows classical training formulae, the excitement of the ensemble cast in doing something scenting of the avant-garde was palpable. And the preparedness of what was once improvised comedy really seemed to work for the group as a whole, perhaps as a useful hinge between formal experiment and the trappings of drama as such. And while the topicality of the production–which I saw a week before the 2012 presidential elections–seemed a bit heavy-handed personally (Illinois voter registration cards were handed out at the encore), for once Krannert seemed to be targeting the immediate concerns of their ethical constituency: the undergraduates. That this might have been the first election many of them would have voted in (if voting at all), it made drama seem exigent to the two young men seated in front of me. At the start they were the most interested in the intermission as a means of escape from this requirement for their online theatre appreciation course. (How can something like that even exist‽) They stayed to the end. But the back-end of the season spoiled me as well. A huge fan of the Reduced Shakespeare Company’s Complete Works of Shakespeare (Abridged), I was thrilled that Krannert brought the original cast in, demonstrating what tight collaborative composition and an investment in group pacing to effect humor could look like. It is almost impossible for me to think objectively about the performance: coming in late, I got an aisle seat about five rows from the front. This meant that I was called up in the last set of scenes to represent France, Jamaica, and participate in the running of the bulls in their presentation of the Olympics on the heals of London last summer. I even enjoyed a brief exchange with the RSC boys via Twitter! This is all to say that generically the most successful points of the season for me were topically exigent, satiric in tenor without disaffect, and privileged the ensemble structure.

The romanesque amphitheater that ornaments the entranceway to the four indoor performance spaces of the Krannert Center at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Despite acoustically satisfying concert halls and playhouse spaces in the Krannert facility, the musical offerings of the theatre and opera programs are typically inconsistent experiences. This year took up the semi-absurdist bite of early 20th-century opera as a thematic cornerstone to My Fair Lady, Spring Awakening, and The Threepenny Opera. Each featured a solid male principal: Timothy Renner as Henry Higgins, David Kaplinsky as Melchior, and Rick E. Calk III as Macheath, respectively. Strong performers all, they lent depth to their characters and carved out space to demonstrate subtle evolutions over the course of the narratives. I struggle increasingly with the unevenness the principal or “leading man” dramatic structure presupposes as a playtext for its eventual actors: that some will be better than others, so best give your top four players (a leading and supporting man, a leading and supporting lady) the lines and let the chorus fill in the rest. It’s a model the Oscars and many major awarding institutions still privilege; the Academy Awards very noticeably does not include any ensemble awards while SAG does. My own first career choice was to be a Broadway pit musician. In the high school and local university productions I played for, it always struck me that their seemed an odd disconnect between the intensely collaborative process in the pit–with most players doubling and tripling instruments–while the musical format drew stark class lines between the leads and the chorus. Musical scores very rarely feature instrumental soloists, while the vocal arrangements are intensely shaped by solos and duets. (I think Gilbert and Sullivan, on the other hand, had a better sense of how to diversify their song types between solos, duets, and ensemble pieces.) These kinds of “principal” musicals that the season featured also don’t seem to present useful teaching laboratories, where students have to relationally negotiate their performances. This meant our men were strong, had been clearly conscientious about rehearsal, but the seams began to show on those shoals where dramatic acting techniques and musicality met–namely in that they were being asked (and in some cases forced) to carry the majority of the performance, blocked and lit in ways that suggested to the audience that all of our emotional investment must be in the principals alone.

Interestingly enough, both the set of musical works mentioned above and the rest of the drama season were all explicit social critique and employed the “lead” or “principal” model. Now it is only fair to say that a theatre department, unless in commissioning new work, doesn’t have much say over this formal component except in their selection process. However, it seems relevant that in the last decade the plays receiving the most critical attention and commendation are heady ensemble works. As a case in point, Tracy Letts’ last decade of writing and performing and film has brought forth a number of Tonys and Pulitzers. In light of the succulently exigent productions of 44 Presidents and RSC, the rest of the season felt especially dated in the kinds of social critique they proposed. Bald value claims are no use in reviews, I know, but Liz Lochead’s 1985 adaptation of Dracula had no heart despite the stunning set design and mechanics, and no purchase on the state of feminism nearly thirty years in its future. Similarly, Cafe Variations by the visiting Siti Company promised much with its vignette construction. As a concept first developed in the late 80s, its mediations on urban love starting to ring with commonplaces Carrie Bradshaw would find quaint. No Child…was a different matter. A one-woman show written and performed by Nilaja Sun back in 2007 when the former president’s education legislation drove my own mother out of a 25-year career in public education to the private sector, it was hard to align its message next to the Chicago Public School picket lines and closures happening a few hours away. This is not to mention the  majority of parts were being performed by students reared under No Child Left Behind teach-to-the-test legislation. Dispersing the single role into a dozen or so seemed the only logical choice, but the fact that the students playing students who were products of the source of critique toyed with a perhaps unintentional verisimilitude that seemed both too-soon and not-soon-enough.

But I started this discussion by saying there were two areas the theatre department excelled at this season and I think is indicative of the program in the last four years–the latter being ensemble technique. And as I have mentioned  above in terms of the plays themselves as well as performance, timing matters. Larry Kramer’s 1985 The Normal Heart is experiencing quite the second life across the country, beginning with having won Tonys for a revival two years ago. The play powerfully enjambs the moral mire of the AIDS epidemic and the male gay community as separate but entwined phenomena. While its initial iteration won acclaim for the exigency of the first issue, queer rights now coordinate production choice. This production found that sweet spot between privileging ensemble and individual performances, and pitched high on both counts. Leading the fray was first-year MFA Neal Moeller as Ned Weeks. Both explosive and vulnerable, I have my fingers crossed he is cast as Prospero and Jacques next season as he seems well equipped to give them a complex and resonant melancholy. A junior in the program, I was impressed by the sensitivity Nick Narcisi gave to his Judas in The Last Days of Judas Iscariot, and was pleased to see that refined and less sentimentalized in his suave and sympathetic Felix Turner. But my favorite scene from the season was first-year MFA Thom Miller as Bruce Niles, a closeted bank president who looses not one but two lovers in the course of the play. In it, he describes the death of his second beloved while on a plane to his mother’s. So ill, they are nearly blocked, and once in midair, his beloved becomes violently incontinent, dying before they can land. Bruce has to pay a man to steal the body from the plane and put it in a garbage bag so that he can take him home, he not having any familial legal rights. Its a disturbing monologue as text alone, which I would imagine poses the challenge of over- or under-playing emotions, if you can even decide on which palette to select. Like Moeller, Miller struck a balance between violent anger and devastating vulnerability, vacillating gently between the two to make his story seem as if it was possible in this day, not simply an antiquated form of prejudice we moderns have risen above. My own work necessitates that I see the timeliness of historical contexts; I’m invested in the idea that a work doesn’t have to resonate with my particular set of life experiences or political exigencies to have meaning. In this Krannert season, however, I was most captivated by those works absolute in their exigency, unreservedly of and for the moment, asking me to reconsider those potential affordances available, even if ephemeral, in theatrical topicality.

  • For more on early English drama and the paradox of topicality, I recommend David Bevington’s Tudor Drama and Politics: A Critical Approach to Topical Meaning (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1968) and Leah Marcus’s Puzzling Shakespeare: Local Reading and Its Discontents (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988).
  • Detailed descriptions of the upcoming season will be available on Krannert’s website on Thursday, July 18th. Tickets will go on sale to the general public on August 10 at 10am; the box office is open seven days a week from 10am to 6pm.
  • For descriptions of this past seasons offerings and PDFs of programs, visit